Published October 26, 2012
SITTWE, Myanmar – Myanmar authorities on Friday revised downward the death toll from this week's ethnic violence in the country's west after warning that the strife risks harming the country's reputation as it seeks to shift to democratic rule.
State television reported Friday night that 67 people had died, 95 were injured and 2,818 houses burned down from Sunday through Thursday in seven townships of Rakhine state.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing told reporters shortly before the broadcast that the previous count he had given of 112 dead in violence involving the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya communities was based on a mistaken tally of figures received by his office. His revised figures of 64 dead and 68 wounded was slightly lower than that given by state television.
"Many of those who were killed as a result of clashes between the two sides, and at least two died of gunshot injuries," Win Myaing said. There has been no breakdown by ethnic group of the casualties. Some Rakhine residents in affected areas have told The Associated Press they were shot at by government soldiers trying to keep order.
The mob violence has seen entire villages torched and has drawn calls worldwide for government intervention.
In June, ethnic violence in the state left at least 90 people dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. About 75,000 have been living in refugee camps ever since.
Curfews have been in place in some areas since June, and been extended to others due to the recent violence.
Tensions still simmer in part because the government has failed to find any long-term solution to the crisis other than segregating the two communities in some areas.
Thein Sein's government has described the problem as an obstacle to development on other fronts. He took office as an elected president last year, and has instituted economic and political liberalization after almost half a century of repressive military rule.
"As the international community is closely watching Myanmar's democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country," said a statement from the office of President Thein Sein published Friday in the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper.
Although Win Myaing said earlier that the situation was quiet Friday, a resident of Ramree township, which had been spared in the recent wave of unrest, said there were clashes there Friday morning.
"Residents are very fearful of imminent attacks by the Muslim community because security presence is very little. We don't feel safe. We want the Bengalis to be moved away from the Rakhine community," Kyaw Win, 30, said. Rakhine prefer to use the term Bengali for Rohingya, whom they contend are not a distinct ethnic group.
Kyaw Win said that a few houses had been burned down but that no casualties were reported.
"The army, police and authorities in cooperation with local people will try to restore peace and stability and will take legal action against any individual or organization that is trying to instigate the unrest," the presidential statement published Friday warned.
The long-brewing conflict is rooted in a dispute over the Muslim residents' origin. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated as intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The U.N. estimates their population in Myanmar at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and so — like neighboring Bangladesh — denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.
A statement issued Thursday by the office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Myanmar authorities "to take urgent and effective action to bring under control all cases of lawlessness."
"The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped," a spokesman for Ban said. "If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was deeply concerned about the reports and urged restraint.
Casualties from several townships were taken were taken to a hospital in Sittwe, the state capital not yet hit by the latest round of violence. There, Aung Moe Khaing, 25, told The Associated Press he was shot Tuesday when soldiers dispersed the crowd. He was wounded in an arm and a leg.
Phyu Thein Maung, 39, from Yathetaung township, said he was shot in the buttocks.
"Muslims provoked us from inside their village and challenged us from their community, guarded by soldiers," he said. "People were very angry as they shot iron spikes at us with catapults and made abusive gestures. I was hit by a gunshot when soldiers dispersed the crowd."
There have been concerns in the past that soldiers were failing to protect the Rohingya community, but accounts this time from Rakhine villagers suggest that Myanmar's military may have been defending the Rohingya.
The crisis has proven a major challenge to Thein Sein's government and to opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized by some outsiders as failing to speak out strongly against what they see as repression of the Rohingya.
The U.N. warned Thursday that the crisis had sent a new wave of refugees to seek shelter in camps already overcrowded with 75,000 people from the June violence.
Bangladesh has put its border guards on alert, fearing a new influx of Rohingya refugees.
On Thursday, Bangladesh border guards turned away 45 Rohingya trying to enter into Bangladesh by boats, said Lt. Col. Khalequzzaman, a border commander.
Local police chief Selim Mohammad Jahangir said Friday that at least another 3,000 Rohingya Muslims had been spotted on about 40 boats on the Naaf River off Bangladesh's Tekhnaf coast.
Bangladesh says it's too poor to accept more refugees and feed them. Bangladesh is hosting about 30,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar to escape government atrocities in 1991.
Associated Press writer Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report